Human Cloning Isn't as Scary as It Sounds


The recent news of the successful cloning of an adult sheep?
in which the sheep's DNA was inserted into an unfertilized sheep egg to produce
a lamb with identical DNA?has generated an outpouring of ethical concerns. These
concerns are not about Dolly, the now famous sheep, nor even about the
considerable impact cloning may have on the animal breeding industry, but rather
about the possibility of cloning humans. For the most part, however, the ethical
concerns being raised are exaggerated and misplaced, because they are based on
erroneous views about what genes are and what they can do. The danger, therefore,
lies not in the power of the technology, but in the misunderstanding of its
significance.

Producing a clone of a human being would not amount to creating a "carbon copy"?
an automaton of the sort familiar from science fiction. It would be more like
producing a delayed identical twin. And just as identical twins are two separate
people?biologically, psychologically, morally and legally, though not
genetically?so a clone is a separate person from his or her non-contemporaneous
twin. To think otherwise is to embrace a belief in genetic determinism?the view
that genes determine everything about us, and that environmental factors or the
random events in human development are utterly insignificant. The overwhelming
consensus among geneticists is that genetic determinism is false.

As geneticists have come to understand the ways in which genes operate, they
have also become aware of the myriad ways in which the environment affects their
"expression." The genetic contribution to the simplest physical traits, such as
height and hair color, is significantly mediated by environmental factors. And
the genetic contribution to the traits we value most deeply, from intelligence
to compassion, is conceded by even the most enthusiastic genetic researchers to
be limited and indirect. Indeed, we need only appeal to our ordinary experience
with identical twins?that they are different people despite their similarities?
to appreciate that genetic determinism is false.

Furthermore, because of the extra steps involved, cloning will probably always
be riskier?that is, less likely to result in a live birth?than in vitro
fertilization (IVF) and embryo transfer. (It took more than 275 attempts before
the researchers were able to obtain a successful sheep clone. While cloning
methods may improve, we should note that even standard IVF techniques typically
have a success rate of less than 20 percent.) So why would anyone go to the
trouble of cloning?

There are, of course, a few reasons people might go to the trouble, and so it's
worth pondering what they think they might accomplish, and what sort of ethical
quandaries they might engender. Consider the hypothetical example of the couple
who wants to replace a child who has died. The couple doesn't seek to have
another child the ordinary way because they feel that cloning would enable them
to reproduce, as it were, the lost child. But the unavoidable truth is that they
would be producing an entirely different person, a delayed identical twin of
that child. Once they understood that, it is unlikely they would persist.

But suppose they were to persist? Of course we can't deny that possibility. But
a couple so persistent in refusing to acknowledge the genetic facts is not
likely to be daunted by ethical considerations or legal restrictions either. If
our fear is that there could be many couples with that sort of psychology, then
we have a great deal more than cloning to worry about.

Another disturbing possibility is the person who wants a clone in order to have
acceptable "spare parts" in case he or she needs an organ transplant later in
life. But regardless of the reason that someone has a clone produced, the result
would nevertheless be a human being with all the rights and protections that
accompany that status. It truly would be a disaster if the results of human
cloning were seen as less than fully human. But there is certainly no moral
justification for and little social danger of that happening; after all, we do
not accord lesser status to children who have been created through IVF or embryo
transfer.

There are other possibilities we could spin out. Suppose a couple wants a
"designer child"?a clone of Cindy Crawford or Elizabeth Taylor?because they want
a daughter who will grow up to be as attractive as those women. Indeed, suppose
someone wants a clone, never mind of whom, simply to enjoy the notoriety of
having one. We cannot rule out such cases as impossible. Some people produce
children for all sorts of frivolous or contemptible reasons. But we must
remember that cloning is not as easy as going to a video store or as engaging as
the traditional way of making babies. Given the physical